Connecting you with the people of Scotland by sharing their stories
Hi Craig & Noru, please introduce yourselves and what it is that you do?
We originally met when living and working in Rome, Italy, in hotels back in 2006. Craig was originally from Edinburgh though had studied Geography in Aberdeen, the world being mapped he decided to take a different direction to his previous studies and moved to Rome. Noru native to Helsinki in Finland and having studied graphic and web design found herself in Rome as she had family in the city. After a couple of years, working in hotels, teaching English, eating and drinking well and generally enjoying La Dolce Vita we took a trip to Scotland to see friends and family. We flew into Glasgow and took a train to Edinburgh, as we exited by the ramps from Waverley Station it was a glorious day and Princes Street Gardens was buzzing with people. Noru then decided we should move there and a couple of months later we did. We lived in Edinburgh for about six years, mostly working in hospitality as we learned more about managing hotels. It had always been a dream of ours to someday have our own business and so we decided to sell our flat, convinced Craig’s parents to sell their house, took out a big bank loan and bought a small Highland hotel and relocated our lives to North Ballachulish near Glencoe. The distillery was a side project of the hotel which just continued to grow, so much so that by November 2020 we took the decision to bring in a management company to run the hotel on our behalf whilst we now continue to make spirits full time. Over the years we have been very fortunate to work for and with some amazing and inspirational people and also together. Though not for everyone, we love working together as we have very different skill sets but a shared ambition.
How did the idea of Pixel Spirits come about? And how has it developed over the years?
The concept for our craft distillery began in 2015 as we wanted our very own unique gin for our bar at Loch Leven Hotel in North Ballachulish between the mountainous Glencoe and town of Fort William. We originally were trying to find a small distillery to make a bespoke recipe for us but struggled to find anywhere at the time who could do it for the size of production we required and price that was fair for our customers. As we researched gin making more, we realised that it was a project that as gin and rum lovers that we would love to take on ourselves. We were fortunate enough that sitting behind the hotel were disused former cattle byres which we decided to convert into our distillery. We finally opened our doors in October 2017 launching our first gins including Devil’s Staircase, a Highland Spiced Gin just a month later on the 15th of November 2017, Craig’s Birthday.
Having struggled to find anyone to make our very own gin, we decided that this could be an opportunity to make bespoke gins for other small businesses and this is still an important part of our offering. We love creating amazing recipes and to date have produced almost thirty commercial recipes for ourselves and others.
Can you tell us what it’s like in North Ballachulish, and how this location benefits your business?
Being based in the West Highlands of Scotland we are proud to call Lochaber our home. The distillery is based within the grounds of Loch Leven Hotel with dramatic views over the loch to the still snowcapped Munros on the far side of the water. When you walk down to the waterside you can look down Loch Leven to The Pap of Glencoe, it is a truly breathtaking and rugged environment which is why our locality is so often chosen as a location for movies. Its dramatic beauty and wild landscapes make it also a hot spot for tourism. The area, come rain or shine, is a mecca for holiday makers from adventure seekers to holiday makers looking for relaxation, coming to soak up true Highland hospitality. Our products are inspired by the land and people around us and we think that our branding represents this. With hospitality at its heart, when you come to Discover Glencoe there is a wide range of establishments who stock our brand, and our onsite Gin School is a perfect indoor activity with people travelling from all over the world to take part.
The distillery itself has been converted from a traditional A-frame barn, can you tell us more about this, and can people come and visit you?
The distillery originally comprised two interconnecting former cattle byres, one became the still room where our two stills produce our gin and rum, with the larger a-frame barn being converted to house our gin school, bottling and labelling and warehousing space for aging our rum. When we started the project, the barns were more or less derelict and had been used for thirty or forty years to house all kinds of broken junk that needed to be stripped out before we began conversion. We hoped the process would take about a year but in the end, it took almost two mostly because it was self-converted by ourselves with the assistance of friends and family before finally bringing in a qualified electrician to ensure that we don’t explode. Since our inception we have run the gin school welcoming gin lovers from around the world the opportunity to distil their very own unique small batch gin on our copper mini-stills, 2021 also saw us widen this to allow our guests the chance to also distil their own rum. On top of distilling classes we also offer tour and tasting experiences in conjunction with Loch Leven Hotel. The tours are pre-bookable as we are a working distillery but also because as such a small business it is us who also do most of the deliveries, marketing, sales calls and all manner of other tasks so are not always available at a moment’s notice.
What makes you unique from other gin & rum distillers? Can you tell us a bit about the process?
At Pixel Spirits we distil big bold spirits. As a craft distillery we can’t compete in terms of economies of scale of the giant drinks’ brands, but what we can compete on is flavour. We always aim to create spirits that don’t hold back so that when you mix them with ice, mixer and garnish you can still taste the depth and flavour profile in the glass. This has been our very simple ambition from the start and has always served us well, leading to us building a community of loyal customers. Our ambition has never been to take over the world but to produce the best quality products and for this we have been lucky enough to win various national and international awards showcasing how a small startup company can truly punch above their weight if you focus on quality and not quantity. Our processes here are very manual and we believe that in this fast-paced society people still want to connect with the producers of premium small batch products and promote the brands that they believe in. We run two commercial stills, a 100 litre hybrid still producing about 75 bottles of gin per distillation and a larger 500 litre pot still to help us keep up with demand of our better known Signature range products such as Devil’s Staircase. Though our stills are relatively modern in appearance being thermally insulated to conserve energy, our techniques are relatively traditional. For our gin we steep our botanicals in the boiler before distillation to extract as much flavour as possible and for our rum we ferment our molasses very slowly to build flavour before double distilling and aging as we are always thinking how to get the most and best flavour profiles.
We love the names of your signature range; Devil’s Staircase and Drookit Piper, can you share the stories behind the names?
When deciding upon the names of our distillates we like to think that the names represent our locality but also echo the sometimes-whimsical Scottish humour and good spirit. Devil’s Staircase is a local landmark for us, it forms a steep track and part of the West Highland Way that winds its way through our local landscape. The name was given to this climb historically when they were building the roads and reservoir in the nearby town of Kinlochleven, they had not as yet built the local pubs and so the workers would have to climb over the Devil’s Staircase to get a refreshing beverage at the end of their shift. Sadly, during the winter months many people perished on the return leg from the pub of an evening through the snow and ice and so the name was coined. Drookit Piper and recently released Drookit Hoose take inspiration from our often-traditional Scottish weather. Drookit is the scots for extremely wet or drenched and so what is more iconic and truly steeped in Highland culture than a damp bagpiper or a bothy in the glen? We don’t like to take our selves too seriously and think that the names of our products reflect the fun and energy that we bring to the sector.
What would you say is the best way to drink your rum and gin? Would you recommend pairing them with anything in particular?
We have always been firm believers that mixer pairings and even garnishes are a very personal thing and have always been a bit taken a back when people say you can only serve a spirit in a certain way such as whisky with a drop of water or ice. We of course have our own personal recommendations and over the years have tried and tasted all of our products in a magnificent range of combinations. These days we are very lucky to have seen a growth in the range of also small batch Scottish mixers which have added a new diversity to the category. Some of our personal favourite serves include Devil’s Staircase over ice with a classic tonic water, a ribbon or orange peel and a couple of cardamom pods or with ginger ale as an alternative. We generally prefer to pair our gins with garnishes found in the gin recipe itself so that they are complimentary rather than changing the flavour profile too greatly but simply accentuating it. With our aged rum in mind, we love this simply over ice as a sipping drink. We both love a great cocktail and our spirits we find make an awesome base spirit for these, Drookit Piper in a Bramble is a go to or our golden rum in a Rum Old Fashioned, you can even barrel age this cocktail at home for a truly unique take.
You mentioned that you offer Gin and Rum distilling experiences, what can people expect from taking part in these?
We greet our students with a welcome drink at our spiritual home, The Old Ferry Bar at Loch Leven Hotel. Here we give out a classic serve of our gin or rum and learn about the history of our unique distilling company. After this we make our way over to the distillery where Craig, our Master Distiller, allows our students to see and learn about how we distill our gins and rum, how we bottle, wax seal and label them by hand onsite. The students are then guided through recipe development in our classroom and upon formulation of a unique creation of botanicals of which we have hundreds on site, the botanicals are weighed into the stills and distillation commences. As the stills heat up there is time for the day’s distillers to give a unique name to their spirit of adventure on their labels followed by taking heads, hearts and tails. Meanwhile the students learn more about what is involved in the process such as taking cuts, how to measure the strength of our spirits and a whole lot more besides. After bottling their spirits, the class label and finally wax dip their creations before then usually making their way back to the bar to partake in some small batch creations.
Can you share a few spots where you love to go nearby?
If out for a stroll locally there is no place more magical than Bishop’s Bay, you can breathe the sea air as although Loch Leven is fed by River Leven at the far end of the water, at our end it joins Loch Linnhe connecting it to the North Atlantic. Here you can find if lucky, red squirrel and deer amongst the trees, spot otters and even the very occasional dolphin. Small boats are moored here and in the distance in every direction you see the mountains rising above. It is one of the lesser-known gems and is quite rare that you see another sole.
Outside of North Ballachulish, is there a specific place in Scotland you think is particularly special?
We are truly fortunate to live where we do, with open spaces, clean air, lochs and mountains and our hearts are here. As part of our wonderful business, we are lucky to have to deliver our spirits to some outstanding locations across the country each unique. However, Craig being born and raised in Edinburgh and having both lived there for many years, it still feels like home when we visit and when we get the chance, we love to revisit and take in the cosmopolitan atmosphere, wander through Stockbridge or over to Morningside, see a concert at the Usher Hall or visit one of the outstanding galleries that are all within walking distance. When we grow tired of the hustle and bustle there are some amazing quiet little spots down by the water of Leith to read a good book weather permitting.
What’s next for Pixel Spirits?
We are currently converting another interconnecting barn into a little on-site shop due to be completed later this year. From here we will sell our spirits direct to our customers as well as a range of other local Scottish spirits, beers and merchandise. The shop has a door directly into the still room so visitors can see where the magic happens. We are truly excited to bring this also to the local area as it can be quite a drive to the closest off licence. Over the years we have also found that the best way to learn about a product is from those who produce it, who know every small detail about its production which we are sure will be loved by our customers. We constantly strive to create new interesting products and I am sure there will be some more launched before the year is out, but we also strive for greater sustainability making better choices where ever we can to become more environmentally friendly such as recently switching our bottles over to ones that are about a third less in glass weight.
Where can readers find out more about you and where can they buy your spirits from?
A great place to find out what we are up to is on our social media where our followers can see some of the interesting things that happen often behind the scenes.
Spirits can be purchased from some outstanding independent bottle shops across Scotland, and if they don’t stock our products let them know as they love to hear about distinctive Scottish produce. Our own web shop is a great place to find some of the smaller batch artisan products that we produce out with of our signature range mostly sold exclusively by us.